Bhutan’s National Dress

The national dress of Bhutan is called the gho for men and kira for women. It was introduced during the 17th century to give the Bhutanese a unique identity. In an effort to preserve and promote its cultural heritage, all Bhutanese people are required to wear the national dress in government offices, schools and on formal occasions.

The gho is a long robe hoisted to the knee and held in place with a kera, a woven cloth belt, wound tightly around the waist. This forms a large pouch above that may be used to contain particular items, traditionally a bowl and betel nut. Our guide proudly tells us that with the tight band around the waist, he has ‘the world’s largest pocket’!

Three aspects of wearing a gho traditionally reflected the wearer’s station in society: the height of the go, the length of the cuffs, and the extent of exposure of the toego at the collar. Nobility, senior government officials, and members of the religious order generally wore their ghos below the knees. Everyone else wore a gho that fell above the knee. Similarly, only the elite were permitted to display long cuffs and expose a considerable amount of the toego at the collar. By the 1990s, however, through social custom, the increasing number of wealthy “commoners” made this distinguishing feature disappear.

traditional-bhutanese-dressMost Bhutanese men carry a dagger known as a dozom in their gho. It is a multi-utility item whose use ranges from peeling betel nuts to cooking and self-defence. Other accessories are used for formal occasions, however. A kabne is a long scarf worn when visiting government offices and temples and when meeting senior officials. It is the traditional mark of rank, with the colour determining rank. Ordinary people wear a white kabne; senior officials wear red, which can be awarded only by the king. Ministers wear an orange one, and those of the king and the head of the religious body, the Je Khempo, are saffron.

People in the military, when wearing the national costume, wear a shoulder sash for the same purpose. Women wear a rachu, a woven sash worn on the shoulder, though here there is no distinction of colours to mark people’s ranks. On formal occasions, the attire for men requires the traditional boot known as dalham, a knee-high boot made of cloth and embroidered with decorations. Senior officials who wear a red scarf and higher must wear the traditional sword known as the pata on the right hip.

The textiles with which the gho and kira are made are an important aspect of the national costumes. The different patterns, each with distinctive names, bring the kira to life and set the gho significantly apart from its original form in Tibet. Bhutanese textiles are artistic and cultural assets that are also quickly finding markets outside of Bhutan.

The traditional dress for women consists of the kira, kera, koma, wonju, toego, and a petticoat. The kira is a large piece of woven cloth that is wrapped around the body in a series of folds. It is worn over a blouse, or wonju, and a cotton petticoat. Body-length petticoats are known as gutsum, and petticoats from the waist down to the ankle are called meyo.

Wrapping the kira is a complex process: with the kira behind the woman, she brings one corner from behind her left shoulder. Wrapping the other end from her right side, she hooks it with the corner by using a koma, a two-part brooch with a connecting chain. She then turns the kira around until the edges reach her right side, loops it back to her left, and draws it behind to her right shoulder. The two ends are again hooked together with the other end of the koma. The resulting pleats are adjusted until they are even, and the dress is fastened at the waist with a belt known as a kera.

A jacket or toego is worn over this. Cuffs are formed by folding the wonju’s sleeves back over the sleeves of the toego. Tying the kera creates a pouch in the fabric above it, which is used as an ample pocket to keep anything from money to snacks. Ordinary women and villagers were expected to wear their kira ankle length, while the nobility and wives of senior officials wore it to the ground – a practice that continues in rural areas.